Charting a course to Medical School: The amsa map for Success

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Charting a Course to Medical School:

The AMSA Map for Success

Welcome to "Charting A Course to Medical School: The AMSA Map for Success." Written by AMSA members, this guide offers help straight from students who have followed the same route you are facing now. They've learned from their experiences, and now they're sharing their wisdom with you. We hope that you find the information contained in this online guide helpful, and we wish you the best of luck in your journey to medical school.
In this guide:

  • Introduction

  • Through the Years

  • Timeline

  • Extracurricular Activities

  • MCAT

  • Applying

  • Personal Statement

  • Reapplying

  • Interviewing

  • Financial Aid

  • Non-Traditional Applicants

  • Minority Applicants

  • Applicants with Disabilities

  • Lesbian, Gay, & Bisexual Applicants

  • Resources

Congratulations! You have chosen to pursue a career that is both challenging and rewarding -- the range of duties a physician can fulfill is endless. From the researcher who doggedly pursues a cure for cancer to the primary care physician who still makes house calls, all physicians share a common bond, promoting the health and well-being of people. This can be done through treating disease, preventing illness, and even finding a drug which will successfully combat HIV. Yet, every aspect of medicine displays the single purpose of caring for the physical and emotional health of people.
What does it take to become a doctor? The most important trait is a commitment to medicine, to individuals, and to society. Dedication, determination, and devotion to helping people through medicine are of paramount importance. Without these, your training and resulting career will not be very enjoyable or rewarding.
As you embark on your journey to become a physician, remember that you are a physician-in-training the day you decide to pursue medicine. Although formal training will not begin until medical school, personal traits such as character development and leadership ability can be honed even before entering medical school. As a clinician, your ability to reach out to patients, gain their trust, and effectively communicate are of critical importance. The time and financial commitment involved in this pursuit can be staggering. Most students accumulate a large amount of debt while in medical school. This debt, coupled with four years of training and a variable number of years spent in residency training, can seem daunting. Yet with confidence and motivation, these will appear only secondary in importance when you consider what you are gaining in the long run. The time and financial commitment can be viewed as an investment in your future.
When applying to medical school, first understand that there are a lot of untrue myths about applying to medical school. For example, you do not have to be a "super student" in order to gain acceptance. You do not have to be president of a fraternity or sorority, play varsity sports, or be an officer in five other organizations to get in, nor do you have to score in the 90th percentile on the MCAT. (Surprised?) This handbook is intended to dispel a lot of these myths which many pre-medical students may encounter. It will separate what "they" say from what actually happens. The handbook also addresses areas that are not widely discussed, if at all, in many other resources. This is particularly true for non-traditional students, lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, minority students, and disabled students. Each group has its own concerns which will be addressed herein.
As you read through this online guide, realize that there is a myriad of aspects that medical schools consider in an applicant. Some can be seen on a piece of paper, like your grades and MCAT scores. Other aspects such as dedication and compassion cannot be tabulated in an objective manner.
This guide is written by students for students. In our common goal to care for people, we have tried to make the road that lies ahead of you just a little easier to travel.
Through the Years
Information for:

  • Freshman Year

  • Sophomore Year

  • Junior Year

  • Senior Year

Welcome, Freshmen!

If you are a freshman reading this booklet, then we must offer our congratulations. By taking the time now to start thinking about how you are going to get into medical school, you are a step ahead of most other freshmen. If you're not reading this until your sophomore, junior, senior, or post-bac years, don't worry. There have been many others who didn't decide to start pursuing medicine until "late," and many of those are today called "doctors."

Perhaps the most important thing to remember during your freshman year is: don't panic. I know, I know, easier said than done. Making a successful transition to college is definitely not an easy task. You may have to take care of all of the following: living on your own for the first time, making new friends, learning a new town, dealing with cafeteria food, and much more. And, on top of all that, your parents (and medical schools) expect you to make good grades! But, as I said before, don't panic. Making the adjustment is tough, but it can be done.
So what should you be doing during your freshman year to help prepare you for medical school? Well, you should obviously start taking some of the required classes for medical school. Almost all medical schools will require the following:

  • 1 year of general chemistry with lab

  • 1 year of biology with lab

  • 1 year of organic chemistry with lab

  • 1 year of physics with lab

  • 1 year of mathematics (most want at least 1 semester to be calculus)

  • 1 year of English (most want some writing course)

The timeline for taking these depends on a number of factors: your major (engineers should definitely take physics as early as possible), your school (check to see when your school offers part a of 2-semester courses), and your interests and skills. As a general rule, the sooner you get these core courses out of the way, the better (but don't take more than 2 of these rigourous basic science courses at once!). Also, for those of you with AP credits, most schools will not accept AP credit for the basic science courses: general chemistry, biology, organic chemistry, and physics. Furthermore, the class requirements vary from medical school to medical school. Check the latest edition of the AAMC's "Medical School Admission Requirements" to make sure that you will at least be eligible to apply to the schools you want. Also, for your first year, don't overdo things. Remember, you. ve got a lot to do in order to make a good adjustment to being a college student. Save the heavy courseloads for your sophomore and junior years, and try to take between 12-14 hours each semester in your first year.

Now that you've taken care of what to do inside the classroom, what should you do outside of it? As important as grades are, they are not everything. You're in your college years, a time that many call "the best years of my life." So, get involved in your school and community! Your freshman year is a time for you to start looking at all of the organizations your school has to offer and decide which ones interest you the most. Medical schools aren't interested in the quantity of activities you're in, but rather the quality. And when I talk about quality, I mean your dedication and level of involvement. Choose organizations or activities that YOU want to do, not ones you think medical schools want you to do. Trust me: medical schools will be able to tell the difference. Also, during the second semester of your freshman year, look for ways to step up your level of involvement in those organizations. Perhaps you'd make a great officer?
Sophomores: Wise Fools

So, you made it through your freshman year and you still think medicine is for you. What do you do now? Well, make sure you're still on track to get all the core courses taken care of. They don't need to be finished by the end of your sophomore year, but they should definitely be done by the time you take the MCAT. Also, I hope that you were able to develop some good study habits during your freshman year. For many, the sophomore and junior years are by far the hardest years of college. There's no universal "best way" to study; you have to find out what works best for you. Do you like to study in groups or alone? Do flashcards help you? Do you do better work during the day or at night? These are some of the questions that you must answer for yourself. As far as when to study, we'd highly recommend that you NOT get into the habit of cramming. Sure, it might help you for that one test. But cramming doesn't help you remember things in the long-term, and your long-term memory becomes of critical importance during final exams, which often constitute as much as 50% of your grade. Also, if there are copies of old tests available, by all means use them. Just like you, professors can often fall into the trap of being lazy. Some may think, "Why write an entirely new exam when I can just change around the old one?" Professors know that students are lazy, too. Don't be like most other students! Take the time to go to the library and look up the old exams. It will be well worth your time.

If you haven't chosen your major by the spring of your sophomore year, be sure to take care of that. There are many theories out there concerning which majors are the best ones for medical school. On the one hand, majoring in a science may help you in your first 2 years of medical school, but you'll look like many other premedical students when you're applying. On the other hand, not majoring in a science may help separate you from the pack while applying, but you may be at a disadvantage while in medical school. So, what should you major in? Our advice is simple: forget about what you think a medical school wants you to major in, and instead major in whatever you're most interested in. Obviously, premeds are interested in science, so many major in one of the sciences. However, if you love history, why not major in history? After all, once you enter medical school, there won't be much time for classes covering the humanities.
Another academic note we'd like to touch upon is your relations with your professors. Almost all professors hold office hours. Please, by all means, take advantage of that. If you don't understand a concept, visit your professor. If you want to find out more about a certain topic, visit your professor. We cannot stress how important it is to develop a good relationship with your professors. Why? 1) If your grade is on the borderline between 2 grades, a professor is more likely to "bump up" your grade if he/she knows that you've been working hard; 2) When it comes time for you to ask for recommendations, it's much better to have a professor that knows you write a letter; and 3) You might just realize that your professor can be a pretty cool person.
As far as extracurriculars during your sophomore year, try not to spread yourself too thin. Remember to get a large amount of involvement in just a few activities, i.e. quality, not quantity. Also, try and get some leadership experience and become an officer in 1 or 2 activities.
If you are thinking about applying to an osteopathic medical school, now is the time to start volunteering for a D.O. Most D.O. schools require a letter of recommendation from a D.O.
Juniors: Time to get on the ball

Whew! You're halfway through your undergraduate coursework, and you're still standing. Good job! For the first semester of your junior year, just continue what you did your sophomore year. Remember to keep those grades up, because your junior year grades are the last grades that go to AMCAS (application service for allopathic schools) and AACOMAS (application service for osteopathic schools). However, during the second semester of your junior year, the application process for medical schools kicks into high gear. Be sure to stay organized and focused, and follow the timeline provided to stay on top of things.

Seniors: Almost done!

You should know by now how to handle your coursework and your extracurricular activities. Don't stop striving for good grades and participating in clubs just because your applications have already been sent out. After all, you didn't go to college just to get into medical school, did you? Be sure to follow the timeline in this booklet to stay on track. And, finally, relax and enjoy your senior year. You've earned it!

The following is a guideline for the "traditional" pre-medical student, and this schedule will most certainly change depending on your school. You should check with the health professions advisor at your school to see what the recommended schedule is for you. Also, you should check specific requirements for schools that you are especially interested in, since requirements may vary slightly. As long as you fulfill the class requirements before you take the MCAT, you should be okay. Finally, please realize that this schedule includes only the core classes that almost all medical schools want to see. Beyond these classes, it doesn't really matter what classes you take, so feel free to take whatever interests you the most.
Schedule for:
Freshman Year | Sophomore Year | Junior Year | Senior Year
First Term:

  • General Biology I + lab

  • General Chemistry I + lab

  • Calculus I, if required

  • Electives (a few easy required general education courses)

Second Term:

  • General Biology II + lab

  • General Chemistry II + lab

  • Calculus II

  • Electives

All Year: Get involved outside of academics, join clubs and organizations (Join your local AMSA pre-med chapter, or start a chapter at your school!)

First Term:

  • Organic Chemistry I + lab

  • English

  • Classes for your major

Second Term:

  • Organic Chemistry II + lab

  • English

  • Classes for your major

  • Get information about medical schools that interest you.

All year: Start thinking about leadership positions in clubs. Be sure to start building good relations with your professors.

First Term:

Second Term:

  • Physics II + lab


  • Request AMCAS and AACOMAS applications

  • Register for the MCAT

  • Begin studying for MCAT (if you haven't done so already!)

  • Start thinking about which med schools you'd like to apply to


  • Be sure to register for MCAT in time

  • Start asking for letters of recommendation

  • If you did any coursework at any schools other than your current institution, you can start submitting transcripts from those schools to AMCAS and AACOMAS at this time


  • Take the MCAT


  • Start working on your applications (start earlier than this if possible, especially on your personal statement)

  • If you wish to apply for an AMCAS or AACOMAS fee waiver, applications are accepted beginning May 15.


  • Submit your applications! Since most schools use rolling admissions policies, the earlier the better. Do NOT put this off.


  • Complete and return your secondary applications as you receive them. Some may come before this time, some may even come after.

  • Start preparing for your interviews


  • Most interviews occur during this time. Make sure you are prepared.

March-May 15

  • If you have the luxury, take some time to choose wisely about which school to attend

  • Start seriously thinking about how you're going to pay for medical school.

May 15

  • By this date, if you have been accepted at more than one school, you must choose just one school, and drop all others.


  • During this time many schools will try to complete their medical school class by inviting students off of their waitlist. If you are still interested in any schools at which you are waitlisted, by all means let them know!

If the cards didn't fall your way this year, regroup and plan a strategy for next year. Be sure to see our section on reapplying as well.

Extracurricular Activities
You might ask yourself, "What does it take to become a doctor?" It takes intellectual and heart-rending endurance, the desire and ability to relate to people effectively, and especially, the competence to think logically and to use common sense. Medical schools look for evidence that demonstrates traits such as leadership, maturity, determination, inquisitiveness, and a demonstrated interest and knowledge about what medicine encompasses. This can be accomplished, in part, by having experience in a health care setting, by speaking with health care professionals who have been through it, or by getting exposure to research at the undergraduate level. Not only will involvement in extracurricular activities show your determination, it will also give you a realistic view of the medical field, enabling you to observe its shortcomings, demands, and rewards first-hand.
If you are unable to volunteer or find a health-related job at your local hospital or clinic, there are other alternatives. Working, playing sports, or even playing a musical instrument will demonstrate your commitment to a particular activity. These activities may take large amounts of time and may help explain your lack of involvement or enthusiasm elsewhere.
Many college students who have no other choice but to work in order to pay their expenses may find their outside employment a valuable experience and a possible source of recommendation. Nevertheless, it is important that pre-medical students maintain decent grade point averages. Outside employment is extremely time-consuming, especially for students who are already swamped with heavy course loads. This may lead to a lack of studying which will undoubtedly lead to lower grades. Many pre-professional advisors suggest that taking a semester off is often a good idea for those who have to work through school. On the other hand, many students actually find it easier to perform well in school while working a little every week; they find it gives them more structure -- that they can schedule their time more efficiently when they are forced to do so.
There is no doubt that pre-medical students face high degrees of stress, and many students turn to sports as a means of alleviating it. Participation in team sports in particular may exhibit your ability to cooperate with others (a very important trait for a physician).
While the personal and social traits that medical school admission committees seek in prospective applicants are difficult to measure, a display of devotion will definitely be beneficial and may increase your chances of being accepted to medical school. Nonetheless, it is crucial to point out that extracurricular involvement will not make up for low grades or low entrance exam scores.
It is also important to remember that you should be able to develop your interests outside of medicine. Book knowledge is not the only key to becoming a good physician -- communication skills, energy, and enthusiasm are also of great importance. Through extracurricular activities, you have the opportunity to develop these skills while pursuing interests which you truly enjoy.

  • Pre-medical Access to Clinical Experience (PACE)

This guide outlines the most effective methods for securing a medically challenging patient contact experiences before medical school.

  • Begin volunteering or shadowing physicians as soon as possible. Medical school admissions committees like applicants who know what is in store for them and who know what the profession is really like. Remember: most D.O. schools require a letter from a D.O. Letters from M.D.s are not accepted in place of a letter from a D.O. For students applying to allopathic medical schools, a letter from an M.D. that you shadowed can really help you out, too. A letter from a doctor who's simply a relative or a friend of the family will not get you really far.

  • If working will make your grades suffer and you can avoid working while going to school, then do so. If you must work, try to get a job in a medical setting.

  • Get involved in things you enjoy. There is a great deal more to education than books.

  • For your extracurricular activities, quality matters, not quantity. Pick a few activities that you like and get really involved in them, instead of spreading yourself too thin.

The Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, is offered twice a year, once in April and once in August. The MCAT is required by 98% of all medical schools; the other two percent of schools require other standardized tests. Applications are available through your school's health professions advisor, an office of measurement and evaluation (if your school has one), or directly through the American College Testing service. Beware: the MCAT is a rather expensive test. Fortunately, there is a fee reduction program for financially disadvantaged students.
What does the MCAT consist of?
The MCAT consists of four sections: physical sciences, biological sciences, verbal reasoning, and a writing sample. The testing period takes a total of approximately eight hours and is split up in the following way:

  • Verbal Reasoning, 85 minutes

  • Physical Sciences, 100 minutes

  • 50% Physics

  • 50% Chemistry

  • Writing Sample, 60 minutes

  • Biological Sciences, 100 minutes

  • 75% Biology

  • 25% Organic Chemistry

How much should I study?
No one can really answer this question, simply because it depends upon the individual in question. If you have completed the core requirements prior to the exam, it should be fresh in your mind and you should not have to spend an exorbitant amount of time re-learning. It may be a good idea to take a diagnostic test to see in what areas you should focus your review efforts.

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